In appreciating India, it's extremely handy to have a basic grounding in Indian history and the tenets of Hinduism, as there are very few places in the country that haven't been fundamentally shaped by a combination of theological and historic events. So here's a quick summary of Hinduism and Indian history.
The Hindu Pantheon
Hinduism has a lot of gods – it makes Christianity look positively lightweight. However most of the stories are centred round a handful of big players, and it's worth knowing who they are.
It's also worth noting that India's gods look very unlike the local population (unlike in Christianity, where Jesus looks like a normal human being). In no pictures of Hindu gods will you see a moustache, except occasionally on the baddies, such as the Ramayana's evil Lord Ravana; in India you will be hard pressed to find a man without the ratty porn-star look. Hindu gods and goddesses don't worry about flashing their flesh around, and although they keep their nether regions and mammaries well hidden, they always show a bit of leg; in India, legs are a novelty, so much so that when I see foreigners wearing shorts, I cringe. And a number of Hindu gods are depicted with light-coloured or blue skin; most Indians are neither light-skinned nor blue, but this may explain why it is more desirable for an Indian to be born light rather than dark. Anyway, on to the gods themselves...
First up is Brahma, the Creator. His consort is Sarasvati, the Goddess of Learning, and he rides around on a white swan, carrying a musical instrument called a veena in his hands. Brahma is fairly unusual in that he has a head with four faces – one facing forwards, one facing backwards and one on each side – which represent his all-seeing presence.
Then there's Vishnu the Preserver. His consort is Lakshmi, the Goddess of Wealth and Prosperity, and he rides around on the mythical garuda bird, carrying a conch shell and a discus. Vishnu has visited earth in nine incarnations, the first six of which were in a variety of animal and human forms. In visit seven he came down as Rama (whose consort is Sita), in visit eight he turned up as Krishna (with consorts Rahda, Rukmani, and Satyabharma), and for visit nine he was the Buddha (though Buddhists disagree with this, and that's the main reason why the two religions split). For his tenth incarnation, Vishnu will come as Kalki, and will appear riding on a white horse.
The third main god in this trinity – which is often regarded as a representation of one omnipresent god – is Siva the Destroyer (pronounced 'Sheeva'). His consort is Parvati, the Beautiful, and he rides around on Nandi the bull, carrying a trident. Parvati has a couple of other forms, too: Durga the Terrible, who carries ten weapons in her hands and rides a tiger, and the scary Kali, the fiercest of the gods, who demands sacrifices and wears a garland of skulls. A pleasant couple indeed.
Siva and Parvati have two important children. The first, and probably the most popular Hindu god, is Ganesh, the God of Prosperity and Wisdom, who cruises round town on a rat. Ganesh is easy to spot because he has an elephant's head. Legend has it that Parvati asked Ganesh to guard the entrance to their home while she bathed, and while he was doing so a stranger arrived and made to enter the house. Ganesh tried to stop him and in a rage the stranger lopped off Ganesh's head, but it turned out that the stranger was Siva, returning from a very long trip abroad, and father and son simply didn't recognise each other. Parvati forced Siva to bring their son back to life, but he could only do so by giving him the head of the first living thing he saw, which turned out to be an elephant. Life is never easy when you're a god, is it? Their other son is Kartikkaya, the God of War, which is perhaps not surprising when you consider his parentage.
There are a few other gods, like Hanuman the Monkey God, who crops up in the epic poem the Ramayana, and Surya the Sun God, but these are the most important personalities of Hinduism. It makes Christianity and Islam look kind of short-staffed, wouldn't you say?
A Potted History of India
While we're on the subject of Indian culture, here's a quick discography of India's various empires and civilisations. Understanding India's past is particularly useful when visiting forts, temples and so on – history gives these buildings a wonderful dimension on top of the already breathtaking architecture.
Indus Valley Civilisation
3300 BC – 1500 BC
One of the world's first urban civilisations, this is when Hinduism was born.
1500 BC – 321 BC
Aryan invaders retain Hinduism and the caste system is introduced. The rise of Buddhism starts around 500 BC, and Hinduism tries to contain it by including Buddha as one of its gods (the ninth incarnation of Vishnu).
321 BC – 184 BC
The Mauryan Empire reaches its peak under the great Emperor Ashoka, who converts to Buddhism in 262 BC. He builds many Buddhist rock carvings and pillars, including Sanchi. Buddhism doesn't reach the south, which remains staunchly Hindu.
184 BC – 70 BC
Many Buddhist cave carvings are completed.
Various Buddhist Empires
70 BC – 319 AD
Including the Indo-Greek, Indo-Scythian, Indo-Parthian and Indo-Sassanid Kingdoms, and the Kuchan Empire.
319 – 606
Known as the Classical Age. Much Buddhist art is created and buildings are erected, but towards the end of the empire Buddhism declines and Hinduism rises in popularity once again.
The North Splits
606 – 1527
After the invasion of the White Huns, northern India splits up into lots of individual Hindu kingdoms, and is never really unified. The Muslims start to raid India from 1001, with varying degrees of success, eventually establishing the Mughal Empire in 1527.
Sundry Empires in the South
550 – 1565
The Hindu empires of the Cholas, Pandyas, Cheras, Chalukyas, Pallavas, Hyasalas and the Vijayanagar Kingdom all flourish at various times and in various places in the south. Also a large number of localised city-based kingdoms thrive.
1527 – 1757
The Mughals are great builders and artists, introducing Islam into India but tolerating other religions. The Taj Mahal is built between 1631 and 1653, but the power of the empire declines steadily after the death of the last major emperor in 1707.
1646 – 1803
The Marathas gradually take over the weakening Mughals' lands, defeating the Mughals in 1757, but a defeat in 1761 by Afghanistan stops their expansion, and eventually they decline and fall to the British.
1612 – 1947
First British trading post is established at Surat (Gujarat) in 1612. Others follow in Madras (1640), Bombay (1668) and Calcutta (1690). In 1803 the East India Company defeats the Marathas, leaving only the Punjab outside British control; the Punjab is taken in 1849. In 1816 the British and Nepalese reach agreement on the boundaries of Nepal following a two-year war, and mutual respect between the Gurkhas and the British prevents Nepal becoming part of the Indian Empire. In 1857 the Indian Mutiny leads to the British government winding up the East India Company and taking over India itself.
In 1947 India gains independence from Britain, and what we now know as Pakistan and Bangladesh are partitioned off into separate countries, among much rioting and bloodshed. The India we know today is born.